Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance. Continue reading “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery”

What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I am continually impressed with how little questioning of the legitimacy of warfare as the default way to resolve conflicts I have encountered. I have seen even less skepticism about the Civil War as a tool for the good than I found in relation to World War II. I tend to think that so long as people accept those wars, they will continue to accept our present-day warring and preparation for warring.

A representative view of the Civil War

I encountered a representative view of the Civil War that illustrates my concern when I listened to an April 16, 2019, interview with Andrew Delbanco, history professor at Columbia University and author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, on a program called “Letters and Politics.”

I was impressed with Delbanco. He is knowledgeable and insightful about the Civil War era. He has good values and seems to be a reliable analyst. He makes helpful connections with the present. It is because he seems perceptive and humane that his comments about the “validity” of the Civil War seem especially useful (and troubling) for me. If someone with his general sensibility has these views, I think it is safe to imagine most other historians of the US do, too (and probably most people in the wider society). The comments that especially struck me came at the end of the interview as he was drawing some conclusions. Delbanco said:

In retrospect, I think most of us would say the price was worth paying. A million dead for the emancipation of four million human beings whose ancestors had been enslaved and whose descendants would have been enslaved if the war had not taken the course it took. But again I would suggest, how many of us today would willingly send our sons and brothers and friends to their deaths for any moral cause? How many of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum would be willing to contemplate war of that scale and savagery as a method to achieve a better society? I’m not sure I would. So, supporting the Civil War in retrospect is easy. Committing oneself to a war like that in prospect may not be so easy. Continue reading “What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?”

A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2019

I have long been interested in a quite challenging moral issue: How can we overcome evil without adding to the evil? This issue is central to the philosophy of nonviolence, and I think it should be central to any sense of ethical truthfulness. This is a good way to get at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the big problems idealistic human beings have struggled with is the problem of working for social change or working to resist injustice and finding oneself actually contributing to making things worse.

Of course, our wider culture in North America (and presumably elsewhere) is not all that interested in this question. We Americans tend to take a pretty narrow and superficial view of social dynamics, constantly barraged as we are by American exceptionalism and corporate feel-goodism in our mass media. So, we have to stop and turn away in order to get a sense of what we actually face in terms of systemic brokenness and cycles of injustice.

But when we do pay attention, we realize that warism, racism, economic inequality, sexism, and many other problems remain all too present and each has a long history of intractability. Gandhi sought, with only partial success, to break a spiral that is all too apparent in liberation movements of responding to violence with violence in ways that have only led to more centralized power and continued injustice.

This moral question about evil lays at the heart of my energized interest in the American Civil War. This is how I would characterize the conventional wisdom in our society as I have encountered it: The Civil War was indeed a terrible thing with a lot of death and destruction. But slavery was an unacceptable evil that had to be stopped. It was costly, but ultimately worth the cost, to end that plague in our land. So, one of the lessons to be learned is that war can be a force to defeat evil. It is sad that it is necessary because it certainly is destructive. But sometimes war is our only option. Another lesson, then, that follows is that we have to prepare for such possibilities of a necessary war by maintaining the readiness of our military.

Questioning conventional wisdom

As a pacifist (one who denies the moral validity of war under any circumstances and who also rejects the preparation for war), I question this “wisdom” that accepts the acceptability of the Civil War. But I think anyone who desires to take a morally serious view towards war should also question that “wisdom”—even if they might not be as sure as I am about a negative assessment of the Civil War. The just war tradition at times has made the important claim (not taken nearly seriously enough) that humanity’s benefit of the doubt is against any particular war—in part simply because of the enormous destruction that each war causes. In thinking about any war—past, present, or future—according to this claim we have an obligation to assess its cost and to insist on a clear rationale for why that cost is worthy of being borne. If the costs are not worthy of being borne, almost certainly the war will once again be a matter of a response to evil that only adds to the net moral dynamics of evil. Continue reading “A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?”

What happened in the Civil War: Reflections on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2018

[I have started a long-term reading and writing project to try to understand the American Civil War (CW), especially in terms of its moral legacy (here’s an introduction to this project). The first step will be to read a number of the standard accounts of the CW and its historical context. As I read these books, I will write blog posts reflecting on some of the things I am learning—both from the books themselves and from my on-going reflections. I will start with this post that responds to what seems to be considered the go-to one volume history of the CW itself.

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era [The Oxford History of the United States] Oxford University Press, 1988. xix + 904pp.

I can see why this book has such a high reputation as the best one-volume history. Though it is 30 years old now, it still seems pretty vital and authoritative. The writing is straightforward and lively. Though obviously McPherson has to leave a lot out, the book is comprehensive. It actually does feel like a coherent volume (unlike many other long historical surveys), even though it is long enough to be broken into three volumes.

I found McPherson to be careful and respectful in his many descriptions of people and events (albeit, I grant that at this point I am just beginning my reading about the Civil War so I don’t have a lot to compare it to). His rhetoric is understated. He clearly writes as a “Yankee,” but I don’t think his tone is at all hostile toward the Confederates. He greatly admires Abraham Lincoln, but he gives us enough information to help us form our own opinions of this central character. Likewise with U.S. Grant. Conversely, he has a low regard for Jefferson Davis—though he is admirably calm and descriptive about Davis. The negative impression comes simply from the description of how time after time Davis supported morally problematic practices and ideals.

I look forward to in the future looking back at this book with much deeper and wider knowledge based on my upcoming reading. I find it difficult to imaging that my positive assessment will waver much, though. I should say that I have read a number of essays by McPherson, mainly in the New York Review of Books, so I already had a pretty positive impression of his abilities and perspectives. I also want to note in these preliminary comments that McPherson’s agenda was quite a bit different than mine. I didn’t get a lot of direct guidance for my assessment of the CW’s moral legacy—partly because the narrative ends abruptly in 1865 so there is not concluding analysis of the CW and its impact, and partly because McPherson strives mainly to describe the events and people with little evaluation beyond what was effective (or not) in the prosecution of the war.

Nonetheless, I feel after reading this book I am more condemning of the Confederate cause than I even was before. Not because McPherson directly insists on condemnation but because he quite effectively simply lays out the historical details. Of course, I obviously need to learn more. But I expect that my condemnation will get ever stronger. I suspect the deeper my antipathy toward the Confederacy, the more complicated it will be to argue against the value of CW—there is a grim satisfaction to be had in seeing the slave society get its comeuppance. Continue reading “What happened in the Civil War: Reflections on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

Wondering about the American Civil War

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2018

I grew up in western Oregon. Until I was 17, the farthest east I had ever been was Wallowa Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. Then, the summer after my junior year in high school, my family took a road trip out to Virginia to meet my new niece. My dad, who was a history teacher with deep interest in the Civil War, was thrilled to get to visit battlefields, museums, and other key Civil War sites. It was pretty interesting, but we had to leave to return home way too soon and only scratched the surface.

Ever since Kathleen, Johan, and I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, in 1996, I have felt guilty that I have not given much thought to the Civil War. My dad (who died in 1984) would be furious if he knew how I had wasted my time here by not paying more attention to Civil War places and materials. My apathy might finally be ending.

Did slavery actually end?

In the past few years I have learned about the impressive work of Bryan Stevenson. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), Stevenson details his work as an attorney who has devoted his energy to saving the lives of people treated unjustly by our criminal justice system. He established the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, as the headquarters for his work.

Living in Montgomery has exposed Stevenson to the long and deep history of American violence toward people of color. He led an effort to establish a museum that would recognize the terrible toll of lynching in our country. This museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its accompanying Legacy Museum opened their doors in late April this year. With this opening, Stevenson has been asked to talk in various settings about the legacy of such terroristic violence. He is extraordinarily clear and straightforward in the story he tells. A few weeks ago, I listened to an extended interview he gave the Washington Post.

Stevenson made a comment that got my attention. He stated that slavery never actually ended in the United States. It only evolved. This statement came simply as an observation, not as a strong thesis that he laid out a detailed rationale for. But his discussion of the tradition of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings by the thousand in the generations following the legal ending of slavery following the Civil War and his allusions to the ongoing plague of mass incarceration that has especially targeted black Americans offer anecdotal support for his statement about slavery’s evolution (and correlate with Michelle Alexander’s arguments about the dynamics of mass incarceration, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). Continue reading “Wondering about the American Civil War”